One Wednesday evening last July, Pamela Grayson and Mashka, her sable-and-white Siberian husky, were returning from their nightly walk around their condominium complex in the Pinecliff neighborhood. Grayson had lived in the twisty, tightly packed warren of white stucco buildings with red, Spanish-style tile rooftops for 11 years, and had been walking Mashka here for just as long.
In fact, Grayson had been taking Mashka basically everywhere since she bought the puppy in 1999 for $670, the dog staying by her side for the small stuff, like when Grayson was mentioned in a 2006 Gazette story about pet-friendly stores, and the big, as when her son was killed in a car accident. When Grayson went back east for the holidays, she would drive instead of fly, to make it easier on Mashka. One picture supplied by Grayson shows the dog on Santa's lap; another shows the animal buckled into the car.
The pair's connection went deeper, though, as Mashka showed an aptitude for alerting Grayson when the woman was about to suffer an angioedema attack (marked by dangerous swelling below the skin's surface), giving her time to medicate. As put by Grayson, who declines to give her age: "She has literally saved my life on many occasions."
But on that July evening, as Grayson and Mashka neared their home, the husky was 14, nearly blind and still recovering from surgery to remove a malignant adrenal tumor. And as Grayson remembers it, when the pair were about 50 feet from their door, an unleashed reddish-yellow Lab, larger than the 55-pound Mashka, came running toward them and pounced on her as though he wanted to mate. Grayson had previously complained multiple times about the dog being off-leash and now, terrified, she called out, "Please get your dog!" to the Lab's owner, Joe Maher, a deputy district attorney for the Fourth Judicial District who lived down the block.
The Lab, a roughly 3-year-old neutered male named Abe, continued clambering on Mashka as the husky yelped in pain.
Finally reaching the dogs, saying nothing, Maher took control of Abe and went home.
And so in this way, with the kind of incident one sees almost endlessly repeated in dog parks every day, began an odyssey that would eventually include Mashka's death, the endangering of Maher's career, the appointment of a special prosecutor, and untold hours of taxpayer-funded wrangling. And it's still far from over.
No 'How's Mashka?'
Grayson called her veterinarian the next day, because Mashka had spent the night panting and wasn't eating or drinking, who said to bring the dog in if she wasn't eating by the next morning. Grayson called the vet back each morning for the next two days, and was dosing Mashka with pain relievers and muscle relaxants in the meantime.
Finally, on July 16, six days after the incident, she drove Mashka 90 minutes north to Alameda East Veterinary Hospital, where pelvic radiographs showed no evidence of physical injury and an "unremarkable pelvis." Still, the final diagnosis was "back pain secondary to trauma" according to veterinary records, meaning the trauma — Abe's encounter — caused the back pain.
A day after returning from the vet, Grayson walked by Maher's house and saw his girlfriend in the backyard. Grayson asked her if she understood the impact of what happened with Abe, and that there were leash laws. "We're both district attorneys," Maher's significant other responded, as Grayson would recall. "We know the law."
It was probably not the best thing for a worried dog owner to hear, and two days later, Grayson reported the attack to the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region.
City code is very clear on the public behavior of animals. It says one must restrain any dog or hoofed animal "by any means of confinement, collar and leash" and keep it from trespassing on private property. If the animal's not on your property — if, say, it's on a neighborhood street — you not only have to keep the animal from attacking any person or domestic animal, but even from threatening to do so.
Though call records aren't kept longer than 30 days, a case filing shows that HSPPR dispatch took a report that "a medium red dog ... ran up to [reporting party's] dog, jumped on RP's dog, causing injuries (back injuries and bladder injuries)."
A little after noon on the 18th, Officer L. Bertsch with the Humane Society's animal law-enforcement division — which declined to provide its officers' first names due to safety concerns — visited Grayson at her house, took a report on the attack, and left a card in Maher's door, as he was at work.
Records from Alameda East show that Bertsch also called the animal hospital around 6 p.m. "I explained that I was not a doctor and confirmed dog was seen here for recent back trauma," a staffer's note reads. Bertsch "read off the diagnosis and had trouble pronouncing the cystic calculi so I helped and added that [the malignant tumor] had no relationship to the back injury — she said that was what she wanted to know and had no more questions for me."
Bertsch's affidavit also says that Grayson showed him a veterinary statement from July 8, 2013, two days before the attack, "where 'Mashka' had been seen for a wellness check. At that time there was nothing indicating back pain noted in the report."
Maher called HSPPR's law-enforcement division later that night to say he worked during the day, and again the next day to say that if he couldn't be reached he'd just come into the shelter, as he was expecting to receive a summons in person.
Meanwhile, Grayson frantically continued to try to figure out what was wrong with Mashka and how to fix it. "Owner called," wrote veterinarian Heather Becker with the Animal Emergency Care Center in Colorado Springs on July 19. "Mashka was attacked by a dog last week and is not doing well. She is not eating now. [Referring veterinarian] advised [euthanasia]. Owner very stressed and wants a second opinion. Has no money and cannot afford treatment care."
Other veterinary comments continue the suggestion of monetary problems. Several invoices show a balance in the thousands, while there are phone-conversation notes like another on July 19: "Mashka not eating, and is shaking. ... [Owner] wanted to know what to do. ... However, she is on payment plan and we cannot hospitalize her." Or from July 20: "[Owner] called back. Mashka still not eating. ... Cannot bring her in [due to] finances."
It's not clear what happened with the Humane Society in the intervening days, as the record is blank and Maher declined to be interviewed for this story. Grayson did call the Denver vet back and was again advised to consider euthanasia if Mashka did not improve.
On Friday, July 26, Maher was contacted at home around 7:40 p.m. by Corporal V. Cheney. HSPPR's law-enforcement division has corporals and sergeants and captains and chiefs, just like a police department, with the same authority to charge, though not the same authority to arrest. Cheney wrote in his report that Abe was co-owned by Maher and his girlfriend, and that a summons for Colorado Revised Statute 18-9-204.5, Unlawful Ownership of a Dangerous Dog, was accepted.
The charge itself is not uncommon. Director Joe Stafford, the head of animal law enforcement for HSPPR, says 1,011 related citations have been issued since 2011, or around one per day.
"After the case is adjudicated, I could give you my opinion why [this case is] something that's even on your radar," Stafford says in an Indy interview. "I mean, dogs come up to people all the time; you know, act in an aggressive manner — there's things of that nature that happen every single day. And it's hard to say what drove this. I certainly have an opinion about that, but it's immaterial."
Grayson — who says she never heard from Maher until after she called HSPPR — thinks she knows.
"[Maher and his significant other] did come to my home after I turned him in," she tells the Indy about the mid-August visit. "But when he came to my home, he didn't come there to say, 'How was Mashka? How are you?' Had he done that, this wouldn't be where it's at.
"But he came to my home, and he lawyered up on me. Because I had asked him, 'How would you feel if you had taken your dog to the best surgeon that you could get her to, that you'd done everything you could; she survived cancer, she survived diabetes, she's doing well, and someone was irresponsible and left their dog off-leash?'
"'I can't give you legal advice,' he said. I said, 'I didn't ask you for legal advice, I asked you how you would feel. Please don't bring what you do for a living into my home.'"
So there are your four parties: Grayson, Mashka, Maher and Abe. We're up to one attorney and two dogs. Acrimony is flourishing with animosity waiting in the wings, and this mess is about to get a lot more crowded.
To understand why, it helps to know a little bit about Maher, who turned 34 last month, and what's at stake for him.
Owning a dangerous dog is a Class III misdemeanor, and its sentence carries a potential $50 fine and six months in jail. But what it really could be is a black smudge on a record that, as far as the Indy could determine, is glistening. A 2007 story in The Daily Nonpareil, a newspaper in Council Bluffs, Iowa, says Maher graduated from the University of San Diego in 2002 with an accounting degree before he served two tours in Iraq as a captain in the United States Marine Corps. Later, he worked in the office of then-U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, and in 2012 he graduated from the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law. (Maher's LinkedIn account mirrored this before it was deleted.)
The story's photo is of a handsome, smiling guy with brown, closely cropped hair, wearing a blue button-down and a striped red tie who looks to be in his late 20s. It's the face of somebody with a future, one whose license to practice law doesn't need what a conviction could bring.
The Colorado Supreme Court's Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel is responsible for maintaining attorney standards. "Under our rules of professional conduct, lawyers have to abide by the law — and actually, public officials, such as deputy DAs, have higher duties than regular lawyers," says office director James C. Coyle. "So, if a lawyer is convicted of a crime such as a Class III misdemeanor, it could be grounds for a suspension or a public censure, depending on all of the circumstances surrounding the conviction."
It's hard to imagine that anything like what happened between Abe and Mashka would mean more than a slap on the wrist for Maher. Yet the case has steadily grown.
And when Mashka was euthanized Oct. 1, it set tumultuous emotions in stone.
The day began with a drive to Alameda East, because the dog's chronic diarrhea had become bloody, she was barely eating, her diabetes was uncontrollable, and the rear-leg weakness was worse. Grayson had been visiting and calling the vet periodically in preceding weeks, but it was a Sept. 30 phone call about Mashka's issues that prompted the visit.
They weren't driving to Denver for a final goodbye, just treatment. However, Dr. Douglas Santen, who had been treating Mashka for years, would explain in a letter dated Oct. 24 that "after the examination we discussed all the issues and came to the conclusion that Mashka's quality of life had severely diminished and euthanasia was the most humane option." The dog was described as ataxic, which means she would suffer involuntary muscle movements, and was anxiously circling the examination room.
Grayson spent the next two hours in a private waiting area agonizing over the decision.
Ultimately, however, she joined Mashka in a room where eight cubic centimeters of Beuthanasia-D were administered to her beloved dog. The drug contains two active ingredients: phenytoin sodium, which limits seizure-like movements, and pentobarbital sodium, which stops the brain from functioning right before it stops the ability to breathe.
"I cannot even tell you how devastating it was to hold her and say goodbye to her as we let her go to sleep for the last time," Grayson wrote in a letter to the judge. "I had taken her there for treatment, not to be put to sleep, an 1½ [-hour] drive from my home. I was so devastated that friends had to come pick me and Mashka up and take us back to the Springs.
"They built a casket for her and buried her [on property outside the city]. I visit her grave as often as I can bear to."
The plot thickens
After the burial, Grayson is alone in her house, where she hasn't been alone for a decade and a half. She's alone with her furniture, her yard and her stress-related medical reactions that often demand hospitalization. So, what happens? The calls start coming, fast and furious, beginning the day after Mashka's death.
Mediators from the Fourth Judicial District Attorney's Neighborhood Justice Center, an alternative to court hearings, begin calling Grayson to meet, with the goal that she drop the charges against Maher. But several fruitless, three-hour meetings later, Grayson remains furious that her neighbor isn't sorry about what happened to her dog.
"He was extremely rude, and told me he did not deserve to be on this side of it; that he would sue the state if he had to, or whatever, but he was not gonna let this take his career down," she says in an interview. "And I said, 'That's just the point: You're not understanding that you don't have any remorse. You have no remorse whatsoever.' And he's very arrogant, and he feels like this is something he does on a daily basis, and he doesn't feel like he should be on this side of it."
It's during these months, when 2013 becomes 2014, that the case picks up steam with the presence of two more attorneys.
After HSPPR referred the charge against Maher of unlawful ownership of a dangerous dog to the district attorney of the Fourth Judicial District — that is, to his employer — a special prosecutor, Tamara Qureshi, from Pueblo County, had to be named, due to the conflict of interest.
And one more.
"All these people kept calling me ... they would not leave me alone," says Grayson. "And I just fought them and fought them until January. I couldn't take it anymore — I called Juliet."
That's Aurora animal-rights attorney Juliet R. Piccone, who was adamant that Grayson get to tell her story before a judge.
Piccone began by going to mediation with the mourning dog owner. At one marathon meeting, Piccone was kept out of the room while Grayson says she was hammered by Qureshi, who she says kept saying that there's no way "they" would let this hurt Maher's career, or let the case make it to a courtroom, because she was going to offer Maher a plea agreement while it was in the early stages. (Qureshi did not return multiple phone calls for this story.) His sentence would be deferred until he had completed some punishment like community service or probation, and then the charges would be dismissed.
It's because of this feeling — that Qureshi doesn't want to prosecute a fellow DA, as well as a fellow DU graduate — that Piccone developed a healthy skepticism about her abilities in court.
"I don't know that she could just dismiss it for no cause, because there is enough probable cause," Piccone said in an interview at an Aurora Starbucks one recent Friday afternoon.
The 40-year-old graduate of the University of Colorado Law School had arrived in a Ford Escape with CU plates and a bumper sticker that read "I'm Pro-Animal and I Vote." Around her neck, she wore a silver necklace bearing a cat lounging on a circlet, and a rubber bracelet around her wrist inscribed with "No Kill Colorado."
"I guess, and this is what I'm worried about, [Qureshi is] probably gonna screw up the case so bad that there won't be any kind of conviction, because she doesn't want to prosecute the case. And with Mashka, the only thing I was ever hoping to do was just to get the victim" — Grayson — "in front of the judge for a plea agreement. That's what we thought was going to happen," Piccone said. "And we just wanted the judge to know that, look, this is what this dog meant to this woman and this is what's been going on with the fact that this is a DA being quote-unquote prosecuted in his own house. Because everything was going to go under the rug with this case."
So Piccone filed an entry of appearance with the court, objecting to where and how the negotiations had been taking place. It's an unusual move, considering there are technically only two parties in a criminal case: the people, as represented by a prosecutor, and the defendant. But that was just a little too much inside baseball for the animal-rights attorney.
And it worked.
Here's the Honorable Judge Stephen J. Sletta in a Feb. 3 court order, noting some ethical incongruities in the case and moving it, as Piccone had been hoping would happen, into his courtroom:
"This matter had been previously scheduled for a pretrial conference in the Court's First Appearance Center. The FAC is an informal facility wherein the parties can meet to resolve cases without an appearance before a judge. Since the defendant also appears in the FAC as supervisor of deputy District Attorneys, the FAC is an inappropriate venue for this matter to be handled. Therefore the Court transfers the matter to Division A courtroom S 506 for its next appearance.
"Pooches and protests"
It was at about this point that Maher hired our story's fourth lawyer, noted defense attorney Pat Mika, who is perhaps best remembered for a 2011 case in which he defended a Colorado Springs Hooters waitress against charges of serving a visibly intoxicated patron. We contacted Mika multiple times, but he declined to talk case specifics.
"Irresponsible accusations," Mika wrote in an email, "based on greed and dishonest motives designed to disparage an honest, hard working public servant like Joe Maher will go nowhere in an honest system of justice."
There's a theory on Maher's side of this case that Grayson won't drop charges because she wants his money. That doesn't jibe with Grayson saying Maher offered to pay some of a vet bill early in the process, which she says she refused: "I said, 'You're not grasping the concept here. It's not about money, Mr. Maher, it's about you broke the law. You would prosecute someone else for doing this, but you think you're above the law. I don't want your money; I want justice for my dog. It wasn't fair.'"
But then, consider that Piccone included paperwork in her filing with the court that shows that animals such as Mashka, able to recognize medical conditions, can cost somewhere between $25,000 and $50,000. A punishment like that could only come in two places: If Maher goes to trial and is found guilty, the judge could include some amount of restitution in the sentencing, or Grayson could sue him at the trial's conclusion.
"Yeah, I put a huge restitution request in there," says a passionate Piccone, "because that's the only way you can punish someone who won't take any responsibility, you know?"
But Mika and Piccone don't get along for a different, much more obvious reason: In a bid to draw attention to the case, Piccone actually stood outside both the El Paso County Courthouse and the district attorney's office on Vermijo Avenue on April 11 and picketed, with signs showing pictures of the dog and reading "Justice for Mashka." Leading up to it, the Facebook event was cross-posted to groups with names like "Friends of Stallone the former bait dog" and "Justice for Chloe — Dog shot by Commerce City Co Police."
It was a target too juicy to ignore.
"The reality is that there were only three people there at that particular rally that they scheduled at the last court appearance," Mika says with apparent scorn. "And unfortunately we have people grandstanding and doing things that really, as a lawyer, I find reprehensible, embarrassing and, quite honestly, borderline inappropriate."
But it was that day, a Friday, that Piccone and Grayson found out that no plea-bargain had been accepted, and instead the case was set for trial in October. Essentially, they won their battle.
"We had no idea there wasn't gonna be a plea — we thought that this was gonna be wrapped up and done," Piccone says. "We didn't know that they were gonna say, 'No, we're not entering into a plea at this time.' That came as a total shock."
Meanwhile, Grayson's brother bought her a puppy, a Siberian husky named Amaura, who's around six months old now. She says the dog shows no aptitude for sensing her illness, and is exhausting to care for, but she still appreciates the gesture. "Her company has made the void in my heart a little less."
And as for Abe, well, he's at home.
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